Feature story

Alternative action on compulsory detention: Innovative responses in Asia

05 October 2012

People who use drugs in a 05 centre in Tien Lang district, Hai Phong City, Viet Nam.
Credit: UNAIDS

The life of a female sex worker in Viet Nam is filled with fear—fear of HIV, fear of violence, fear of stigma, and most of all, fear of the law enforcement services. A study conducted by the government of Viet Nam in 2012 on sex work and migration found that 50% of female sex workers report being afraid of the police. Up until a few months ago, arrest could lead to years of confinement in an administrative detention centre known as the ‘05’.

However, very recently, the National Assembly of Viet Nam passed a new Law on the Handling of Administrative Sanctions which effectively ends the practice of detaining sex workers in ‘05’ centres. The Law also allows drug users who are subject to compulsory treatment in drug detoxification centres to have court hearings on their cases and legal representation at the court.

“I found it like a dream coming true when I heard the news,” said Khanh, a leader of the Peaceful Place self-help group for female sex workers in Ha Noi, Viet Nam. “I used to use drugs and sell sex. I spent six terms in detention centres. I know how hard it is to stay in there and I know [detention] centres do not help you to stay away from drugs or stop selling sex.”

Khanh was one of the community representatives who were able to share their life experiences and their needs with members of the drafting committee of the new law in early 2011 during a community consultation workshop organized with support from UNAIDS.

During the development of the law, government officials and National Assembly members also sought concerted policy advocacy and technical assistance by United Nations agencies—including UNAIDS, UNDP, UNICEF, UNODC, WHO and UNFPA under the framework of the One UN Initiative in Viet Nam.

I used to use drugs and sell sex. I spent six terms in detention centres. I know how hard it is to stay in there and I know [detention] centres do not help you to stay away from drugs or stop selling sex

Khanh, leader of the Peaceful Place self-help group for female sex workers in Ha Noi, Viet Nam

“I highly appreciate the United Nations’ concerted support to the Ministry of Justice for the development of the Law on the Handling of Administrative Sanctions,” said Vice Minister of Justice Nguyen The Lien, Vice Chairperson of the Law’s drafting committee. “The United Nations has strong comparative advantage in providing legal support to Viet Nam because the United Nations always respects the country’s ownership and leadership in legislation development,” he added.

Following the law’s passage, UNAIDS and other UN agencies are providing support to the development of enabling regulations and the alignment of existing policies that are required for the Administrative Sanctions Law to be put into practice.

The Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), which is responsible for prevention and control of drug use and sex work, is organizing a national policy dialogue that aims to ensure coherent implementation of the law’s new provisions on sex work. The Ministry is also working on a ‘renovation plan’ to introduce alternatives to drug detoxification in detention centres. These include open, user-friendly and voluntary drug treatment centres operating under a ‘community-based’ treatment approach—a treatment model offering social and occupational services, including psychological support and aftercare along with drug treatment services such as detoxification, opioid substitution therapy and relapse prevention.

“By closing administrative detention centres for sex workers and changing compulsory closed drug detoxification centres into open, community-based drug treatment services can greatly help scale-up HIV prevention services for people who are at higher risk of HIV in Viet Nam. This will increase the efficiency of the national response to HIV,” said Tony Lisle, UNAIDS country coordinator for Viet Nam.

According to 2011 HIV sentinel surveillance, HIV prevalence among men who inject drugs and female sex workers was 13.4% and 3% respectively. Another in-depth study estimated that HIV prevalence was 48% among men who inject drugs in Ho Chi Minh City, and 20% among sex workers in Hanoi, the capital of Viet Nam.

“I highly commend the Government and National Assembly for this very important [action]. It will bring tangible benefits to the lives of many Vietnamese,” said Ms Pratibha Mehta, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Viet Nam. “The United Nations hopes that the National Assembly will also review the administrative detention centres for drug users from a similar perspective,” she added.

I highly appreciate the United Nations’ concerted support to the Ministry of Justice for the development of the Law on the Handling of Administrative Sanctions

Vice Minister of Justice Nguyen The Lien

The Vietnamese law was explored in depth, together with other best practices in the region, during the second regional consultation on compulsory centres for drug users in Asia and the Pacific held from 1-3 October in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Organized by UNODC, UN Economic Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and UNAIDS and hosted by the National Anti-Drugs Agency of the Government of Malaysia, the consultation brought together senior officials from Viet Nam, Malaysia and seven other countries from east and south-east Asia. Participants shared practical expertise on how countries may look at moving forwards within their legal frameworks towards expansion of voluntary, community-based treatment programmes as an alternative to the compulsory detention model.

At the closing of the consultation, the nine attending countries agreed to further decrease the numbers of operating compulsory detention centres and decrease the number of people being detained in such centres, at a rate to be determined by the country. “We are delighted at the strong demonstration of interest by the countries of the region to move—albeit at different speeds—towards the goal of voluntary, community-based treatment,” said Gary Lewis, UNODC Regional Representative for East Asia and the Pacific said. “This represents a major step forward,” he added.

In March 2012, 12 United Nations agencies and entities issued a landmark joint statement calling upon its Member States to close compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres, highlighting concerns associated with the centres, including increased vulnerability to HIV and tuberculosis infection as well as insufficient legal safeguards and judicial review.